Monday, December 19, 2016

holidays

As I've said before, every year I grow a little more bah-humbug about the holiday season. There's so much pressure to 'be happy' and make others happy that many people tend to end up making themselves and each other miserable if their Christmas doesn't fit into some ideal they've conjured up in their minds due to media or family traditions and/or pressures.

I was raised by parents who went with the consumer tradition of purchasing nice gifts to give to friends and family at Christmas, and for a long time I felt obliged to keep up that tradition. As I approached my mid-20s I really started to loathe the practice. Not only was it expensive and time-consuming, but managing to pick a gift the recipient would truly be excited about was always very hit or miss. It's a risky exercise even for the most thoughtful of people. I started going with consumables (boxes of chocolates, tins of cocoa-mixes, etc), since it's easier to gather them in one trip and they tend to have a higher chance of being enjoyed or at least could easily be passed/regifted to others.

Leaving town for the Army spared me a lot of the unnecessary pain of hunting down annual gifts for a minimum dozen other people among immediate and extended family and friends.

Around the time DH and I were separating from the military, DH got a bug to learn how to make his own fancy desserts. He mastered chocolate truffles and after relocating back to my home town we started making goodie bags stuffed with them to pass out at the annual gathering of my extended family - mostly to spare us from the effort and expense of all the 'traditional Christmas shopping'.

We've done different treats like chocolate chip cookes and meringues. As our kiddo sails through toddlerhood we've gotten lazier - this year was chocolate bark and fudge (the quickest and easiest treats I could think of to make). More effort than most conventional shoppers would care to make but I say still beats endless time in malls (either brick OR online ones) and hundreds to thousands of dollars on gifts that your loved ones may or may not even like.

DH and I don't even get each other things anymore; except on occasion if he mentions some gadget or goodie (and it's not terribly expensive or hard to find) I might pick it up and shove it under the tree. Certainly no his and her motorcycles, bling that neither of us ever have the occasion to wear, or overpriced smartphones. There is plenty of spontaneous purchases and picking up of restaurant tabs for each other throughout the year. But in general as far as 'stuff' goes, it seems to work out much better if we treat ourselves when we want to. (Of course as we get better at frugal living new stuff becomes an ever rarer occasion as well.)

Monday, October 24, 2016

real estate and real life

There seems to be an endless real-estate debate over the virtues of renting versus owning. Being indecisive and uncommittal myself I understand the pros and cons of both sides and as with many issues tend to be a fence sitter.

When I got out of the military and snagged a nice-paying contractor job, I had by that point been sucked into the conventional American dream of owning a single-family home.

We ended up in a small townhouse, however, shortly after buying our home, glaring problems started to surface that we hadn't seen with our inexperienced, first-time-buyer's starry eyes. In the first year we needed the roof reshingled and gutters redone, and the fire-hazard electrical box, missing bedroom ceiling lights, and ancient water-wasting toilets were also replaced. In the second year the basement, hastily and cheaply carpeted by flippers, flooded badly due to a tropical storm. We ended up getting the entire room down there re-walled and re-floored (with porcelain tiles and proper 5/8ths-inch mold-resistant drywall, to minimize risks of future expensive headaches). The third year we had to replace the heat pump.

There are many shoddily-done parts of the house that we still plan to renovate. Some are choices that we could get by without doing, which leads to the "temptation to upgrade" argument against owning.

I've heard it said that if you're not particularly handy or inclined to be, then you're probably better off renting over owning because the maintenance costs will rob you blind. Costs that could've been money put to better use elsewhere. I wonder how many people feel the weight of that statement as heavily as DH and I do.

So while we are content in the house (for now), I find myself often wishing we'd opted for renting an apartment from the newer complex in the neighborhood. The rent for a two-bedroom would've been a couple hundred more than our current mortgage payment, but if you factor in HOA fees plus a monthly average for all the upgrades and repairs, renting there comes out much more cost effective.

On the other hand I will concede that it does feel good to "build equity" as opposed to handing money to a landlord indefinitely. (But I'll also concede that arguments of that being a psychological trap are fair.) Additionally rent rates tend to drift uncomfortably upward which could undo potential cost benefits. I do heap a good pile of cash on the principal each year with the goal of both increasing equity and decreasing the total interest cost at the end. The tax deduction is also some consolation for the headaches of owning.

I will also admit to the anchored-down feeling that home-owning gives, which grates against DH's and my desires to keep moving around and having new adventures. Having a kid seems to counterbalance that a bit; instilling an increased desire for stability over adventure. And since we're both bringing home robust salaries from very tolerable jobs, for now we're content to stick it out in this house for a while.

In the end, we've grown content to appreciate the mortgaged house for what it is, at least for the medium-term future. But, I also think renting that apartment in the neighborhood could very well have fostered a similar (if not greater) contentment with our living arrangement. Live and learn.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

news diets

I used to go through phases in which I would feverishly watch, listen to, or read the news, thinking it was part of my duty as an American to be a well-informed citizen. But in my journey to become more frugal over the past few years I've attempted a thing called a news diet (or media-in-general diet) and, as I've gotten more used to lower media consumption, have found it very helpful to my state of mind.

In college I had this aggravating communist professor. While I still consider her "out there" in many ways I'd have to admit that she was right about one thing - modern news is still very much like it was in the olden days: sensationalist half-informed hyperbole that tends to promote hysteria instead of mitigating it. It's not much different from fictional programming that's designed to push you on an emotional rollercoaster purely for entertainment purposes. Conventional news outlets seem to only be a contributing source of stress in life. Living without it, or at least with a minimum of it, can be liberating.

These days I rely almost entirely on theSkimm, The Christian Science Monitor, and FactChecker.org to know about what's happening in the world. I've come to believe that relying on these written outlets for my nutshells of news has led to an upgraded personal radar for detecting red flags on questionable reporting, trolling by bored jerks, and fictional click-bait. It's also led to more freed up time and precious little brain space to focus on other things in life.

And, like other frivolous, distracting, and even stressful pursuits in life (too much TV/news/adverts, too much gossip, too much going with the crowd, etc.), relieving yourself of it helps with things like discovering what's important to you, the individual, and sifting out things in life that you realize aren't worth your time, money, or energy. Hence, more life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.

Friday, September 23, 2016

short commutes

I've held short commute times in high priority for most of my professional life. When I joined the military in my mid-20s, my first duty station was in Germany. Being single and among the lower-enlisted ranks, I was assigned to the barracks which at that particular station was a three minute walk from the office. You could say I was spoiled by this experience as I ever after had a very strong aversion to long commutes.

I later moved to Texas for my second duty assignment, where I got married and was able to move off post. A much longer commute by comparison, but while many of my peers paid twice as much for a gated community 40 minutes from work in a supposedly better neighborhood (and some of the officers would commute from much farther), DH and I chose an inexpensive apartment 15 minutes from the work. The complex was not gated, and while the entire area has never had a shining reputation (gated community neighborhoods included) and we had some typical headaches with apartment management, we never had any first-hand problems with crime, even strolling the neighborhood after dark several times with no issues.

Deployment to Iraq was similar to my life in Germany in terms of commuting, as it was a short walk to work and back from your assigned room which also contributed to my spoiled rotten-ness on commuting.

After I got out of the military and landed a nice new job with a nice new salary, I foolishly decided to buy a house (albeit a small townhouse). Happily this little townhouse turned out to be just 2.5 miles from the parking deck at the office (where we both now carpool to work). Yes I could bike there and choose not to. But even after six years of several impressive pay jumps to the household income, we both at least maintain no interest in moving farther out into the more distant suburbs, choosing not to sacrifice large chunks of sanity to spend extra hours dodging thousands of other stressed and angry drivers for the sake of a 5k-sq-ft single-family McMansion in a supposedly better neighborhood an extra 20-60 miles from work.

Call me a commute-snob, but that's yet another source of typical modern life stress that I don't have to devote depressing amounts of time, energy, money, health, and sanity toward dealing with. Leaving me more precious time and energy for lazy-tastic Rest & Relaxation pursuits.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

bah-humbug-ness

Over the years I've grown very bah-humbug about many traditional American festivities. Thanksgiving has hovered the top of that list for some time now. To me it's all started to feel like a whole lot of fuss that every year feels less and less worth the cost, effort, and stress.

Christmas has joined that list, too. We had thought about unloading our Christmas deco but decided against it since kiddo is enchanted by things Christmas like decorated trees in the house (and presents, of course). DH and I have no interest in pushing the idea of Santa, however due to peers he may end up remaining part of the season magic, but preferably with no theatrics on our part to sell it.

Halloween costumes have also been on that list for several years, now. Since kiddo is one of those odd fish with no interest whatsoever in candy, this year we plan to take the additional steps of skipping candy purchases for the neighborhood kids and leaving the house to do something entirely un-Halloween-y (and likely much more frugal) together.

Parties in general have joined the list, too. I can probably blame parenthood for that, with a steep drop in alcohol tolerance and energy levels (which were already well below average in the pre-kid days), has prompted me to more boldly indulge my introverted-ness. Rock concerts, which can be fun excitement depending on the musician performing, have likewise started to feel less and less worth the time, money, and effort required to execute plans for attending them.

Overall I'd say this is largely from laziness, lower energy levels, and shifting tastes due to aging and parenthood. But perhaps the silver lining of parenthood is that it's taught me to prioritize activities better for my spare time.  For example I find travel for the three of us, getting out of the house, out of town, and visiting new attractions together, to still be worth the time, effort, and money involved in planning and executing.